This weekend I will be presenting on feminist leadership at the Michigan State University Women’s Leadership Conference. This topic, and in fact this presentation, was developed years ago in conjunction with my former UIWC colleague, Lysa Salsbury, who is now serving in my former position as the director.

Over the course of the five years that we worked together, Lysa and I presented this workshop to a national audience at NWSA, to a staff affairs conference, to student organizations, and as guest lecturers in several classes. Sometimes we presented together, other times we went alone. I’m pleased to continue to utilize this information on my new campus, and I’m intrigued to find out how it is received at Michigan State University.

The presentation came about after observing incongruence in espoused feminist values and leadership style. We worked with (some more closely than others) several  student organizations in the WCenter. We observed that some of the elected or appointed leaders of such groups neither understood feminism nor practiced it in leadership. They often failed in their ability to advance their feminist cause because they are stuck in a patriarchal leadership paradigm characterized by competition, hierarchy, heroic leadership, individualism, power, command-control styles. Our workshop grew from a desire to  increase familiarity of feminism and feminist leadership in our daily work with student leaders.

As bell hooks (1994) says in Teaching to Transgress, the feminist classroom is a “location of possibility”  as a equitable and holistic social environment. We wondered, could the student organizations we advised be transformed into more feminist environments for social change? Feminist leaders in student organizations can work toward equitable, holistic and nurturing campus environments as a part of a more transformative social justice agenda.

Our Goals for the workshop (when we present to other student affairs professionals) are to:

  • to build understanding about the convergence of feminism and leadership;
  • to listen, share, and explore our common ground as student affairs professionals, leadership educators, and feminists;
  • to explore and examine important issues with a diversity of participants through meaningful discussion.

Why focus on feminist leadership versus women in leadership?

We are taught to think about leadership as patriarchal, hierarchical, competitive, heroic, and individualistic. Why is this? Much of existing literature on leadership has been created by men and studied men in leadership roles. This doesn’t mean that women and members of underrepresented groups don’t also practice hierarchical leadership, but there’s a growing body of evidence to say that they think about leadership differently.

It’s generally accepted that women and members of underrepresented groups have traditionally faced more barriers to becoming leaders then men have. But women, in particular, have greater access to leadership positions now, than ever before. Nationally, 25% of CEO positions in the US are held by women, although, the Fortune 500, which ranks the top 500 U.S. corporations by revenue note that only 12 of 500 are led by women CEOs (down from15). 44% of K-12 school principals are women, and a study by the American Council on Education found that 23% of the U.S.’s regionally accredited colleges and universities were led by women.  That’s an increase of 13.5% over 20 years. Women presidents were more likely than men to be racially diverse in every category.

While there’s general agreement that women have faced more barriers, there’s less agreement on how women actually lead. Much of the literature and research about women’s styles of leadership have focused on essentialism and stereotypes based on our societal beliefs about femininity. Stereotypes of the universal feminine don’t generally mesh with society’s perspectives about “leadership”. You all know the stereotypes; women are seen as nurturing, more relational, emotional,  more caring, less assertive, and less confrontational than men. As Alice Eagly notes, “Gender role expectations spill over onto leadership roles and produce important consequences.”

Interestingly, Albino notes that “leadership styles usually associated with women are often employed by effective leaders of either gender.” But it’s important to note that a leadership style that conforms to the way that women are expected to behave, whether attributed to nature, socialization, or gender role, is not the same thing as a style that is feminist.  In a study called “Gender and the Effectiveness of Leaders” Alice Eagly examined 76 different studies in which men and women managers, supervisors, officers, department heads, and coaches were compared. The analysis showed no significant gender difference in judged leader effectiveness. But there was evidence that  leadership by women and men was considered more effective when they functioned as leader in situations thought to be most congenial to the cultural expectations for their gender.

Interestingly enough, adopting relational leadership style will not gain the same recognition for women as it does for men, since it is consider “natural” for women, but it is the cultural expectations that matters to the perceivers who filter these judgments of effective leadership.

So, what is the difference between feminine leadership and feminist leadership? Feminine is defined by behaviors that are presumed to characterize women. Feminine leadership fails to recognize and make salient the inherent power differential based on societal oppression (or sexism) that disproportionately effects women as compared to men. Feminine leadership also fails to recognize heterogeneity among women, relying on essentialism and stereotypes. Feminist leadership, then, is defined by a set of assumptions and values while paying attention to historical and contemporary circumstances that have created power inequities and oppression for women. Despite differences among feminist theories, there are central points of agreement about equality of representation and empowerment.

The modern feminist movement hasn’t featured much discussion on leadership, which has been, as I’ve mentioned previously, largely a privilege of men in society. Feminists focused more so on topics with more salience, sexual harassment and discrimination, violence against women, reproductive rights, etc. But, studies of feminist leadership have been cropping up recently and this sparked my own interest in the topic.

So, what do I mean by feminist leadership? Feminist leadership is about attending to issues of social justice, focusing on equity, empowerment, fairness, and balance. Feminist leaders are cognizant of larger issues of oppression and work to ensure that no one, regardless of race, class, gender, sexual orientation, religion or ability, is treated unfairly. Feminist leadership is also about community development and collaboration. bell hooks writes that “everyone’s presence and participation must be valued” in a community. As we make connections between individuals we create communities of support and empowerment.  Feminist leaders share power and allow for open participation by all. Barton discusses a key feature that distinguishes feminist leaders from those with a different way of thinking, a “feminist lens” or “radar or set of antennae” which one uses to “continuously scope out her or his surroundings and gather information.” This helps the feminist leader identify issues of oppression at the personal, group, or institutional level.

Fundamentally, I see feminism as a highly personal and individual topic. But, I see great power when we connect this social movement to leadership. How has conventional understanding about leadership impacted you? How has growing up in a gendered society influenced your beliefs about leadership? Do you practice leadership in a certain way because of your gender? What do you see as characteristics of a feminist leader?


Albino (1999) “leading and following in higher education”

Barton (2006) “Feminist Leadership: Building Nurturing Academic Communities”

Chin, Lott, Rice & Sanchez-Hucles (2007) “Women and Leadership: Transforming Visions and Diverse Voices”

Eagly, Karau, Makhijani (1995) “Gender and the Effectiveness of Leaders: A Meta-Analysis”

hooks (1994) “Teaching to Transgress”